How Can You Build Without Borrowing?

By: Malcolm D. MacGregor, CPA

Consider a large church that has lost more than 500 members during its recent building program and now has a $2.1 million loan at prime rate plus 4 percent (during this period prime peaked at 21 percent). Consider another Christian organization that has grown from nothing to more than $2 million in receipts in just five years. During this same period it has acquired more than $7 million in property, but close to 30 percent of its income is going out in interest payments and it is in a constant money squeeze that causes programs to be curtailed because the church can’t afford a $35 part to repair the bus. How about another church that is in receivership and faces potential bankruptcy because its blind drive to build the needed facilities caused it to form a loan fund of unsecured “deposits” of more than $5 million that now cannot be serviced because of internal problems and declining membership caused by the building program.

Contrast these with a church of just over 3,000. Its missionary contributions are the second largest in its denomination and is just completing a $2.8 million building program on a cash basis. How about a rural church of 50 that supports a full-time pastor and is completing its second building program (this one about $72,000) in five years on a cash basis. Or a church of 2,000 whose $4 million, debt-free plan has enabled it to help four other churches start building programs without debt.

Over the past few years, I have had an increasing number of inquiries about the advisability of churches and Christian organizations borrowing to build needed facilities. Although I don’t profess to have all the answers, I do see a strong biblical pattern in building the tabernacle and the temple.

The Problem
There seems to be an eternal triangle in the dynamics of church growth. Once you have enough Sunday school and sanctuary space, your parking lot is too small. The parking lot expansion causes pressure on sanctuary space. And finally, the enlarged sanctuary attracts enough families that you are running out of Sunday school space again. Multiple services and education programs will help some (I taught a seminar at one church that had five morning, two evening and three mid-week services), but there comes a time when expanded facilities are required.

“And thou, Solomon my son, know thou the God thy father, and serve him with a perfect heart and with a willing mind” (1 Chron. 28:9).

“Take ye from among you an offering unto the Lord: whosoever is of a willing heart” (Ex. 35:5).

To come to an intellectual understanding that more space is needed is not at all difficult, all you have to do is be in the parking lot trying to find a place when the first service is letting out. To come to the mind-set talked about in Chronicles is not at all difficult, but how do we achieve the willing, perfect heart that these two passages refer to?

I believe a good part of this answer is to be found in Matthew 6:21 “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I have never seen this point more graphically portrayed than the Flip Wilson routine that has the Reverend preaching and the people responding:

Rev: “God wants this congregation to grow.”

People: “Grow, Reverend, grow!”

Rev: “Part of that growing process is learning to crawl.”

People: “Crawl, Reverend, crawl!”

Rev: “After we crawl, we’ll be walking.”

People: “Walk, Reverend, walk!”

Rev: “After we walk, we’ll be running.”

People: “Run, Reverend, run!”

Rev: “But, to accomplish this, we’re going to need money.”

People: “C-r-a-w-l, Reverend, c-r-a-w-l.”

A willing, perfect heart will be obtained when people realize that a financial commitment is going to be required if God’s highest purposes are to be met during the building process.

The Promise

“For the Lord thy God blesseth thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over thee” (Deut. 15:6).

“The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the leader: (Prov. 22:7).

These two verses taken together form a power pair that should encourage every one of us. Proverbs indicates that the borrowing of money creates a master/servant relationship with the lender as the master and the borrower as the servant. This relationship is borne out in Deuteronomy and gives us a promise-we will lend, thus becoming a master, but we will not have to borrow and become a servant. Is it possible that this promise can be for a body of believers in today’s economy?

The Pattern

When Moses told the people that God had told him to lead them in the building of the tabernacle, he gave them a detailed description of what the construction and furnishings were to be (Ex. 25 to 34). Likewise, David had a detailed description of the temple (1 Chron. 28:11-18) that “the Lord made me understand in writing by his hand upon me” (vs. 19). It was almost as if the Lord had drawn a blueprint of the temple for David.

Over the past 10 years, I have seen many pastors get the vision for a new building or property long before the people could see the need. Once the need was seen by the people, it was the pastor who had the clearest idea of what the building was to look like. Probably the most pointed display of this leading was one church that had approved preliminary building plans, when it became apparent that the building designed was going to be inadequate to meet its escalating needs. In prayer, the church was directed to have the pastor seek the Lord’s leading as to what it was to do.

This pastor read the passages in Exodus and First Chronicles and left it in the Lord’s hands. Several nights later, he awoke, not with a vision or voice from God, but with a certain understanding that a plan that was in his mind was from God. The architect-who was one of the elders who led in prayer to turn the design task over to the pastor-drew the final plans from this rough sketch and was one of the first to marvel at the creative way God came up with the solution to the expansion problem at very little additional initial construction cost! In fact, the absoluteness of many pastors’ understanding of what the building should look like is the source of a whole array of problems.

The Pressure

“Take heed now; for the Lord hath chosen thee to build a house for the sanctuary: be strong, and do it” (1 Chron. 28:10).

“And David said to Solomon his son, be strong and of good courage, and do it” (1 Chron. 28:20).

One of the hurtful things that happens too often at the completion of a building program is the voluntary or forced resignation of the pastor. Most often, growth that prompted the need for new facilities was a result of the leadership of the pastor who is now resigning. What happens in the months between the vision and the project’s completion?

The answer lies in the almost single-mindedness that occurs in the pastor’s life when God begins to put the expansion burden on him. Many months before the need is apparent to the people, God begins to put the pattern in the heart of that leader and then says, “do it.” All of a sudden (at least to the people) the pastor seems to be like all the others, “All he seems to talk about anymore is the need for money.” “Yes,” replies another, “he’s just not feeding us like he used to.” Frankly, I don’t believe these statements are true most of the time, rather they are a reflection of the individual’s fighting that money commitment which a “willing heart” is going to require.

At this juncture, the pastor must do four things:

*He must realize pressure from God also will be accompanied by direction from God. Take extra time to seek exact details from God on how the program is to be handled and trust that He will give you these specifics.

*Share these visions and details with your leaders first and gain their support. This is what Moses did in Exodus 34 and we’ll see David’s pattern later.

*After the leadership is with you, present the plan to the people.

*No matter how loving and careful you are in presenting the program, be prepared to lose families during the building process. (Note that a tree must be trimmed back, sometimes drastically, before new growth can occur. Many times God uses a building program to trim back for growth.)

The Plenty

Along with the pressure comes a glorious promise:

“…fear not, nor be dismayed: for the Lord God, even my God, will be with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee, until thou hast finished all the work for the service of the house of the Lord. And, behold, the courses of the priests and the Levites, even they shall be with thee for all the service of the house of God: and there shall be with thee for all manner of workmanship every willing skillful man, for any manner of service: also the princes and all the people will be wholly at thy commandment” (1 Chron. 28:20-21).

In Exodus 36 we see all the willing labor that was needed to prepare the tabernacle was forthcoming and God promises this same support to Solomon and those of us who are willing to accept it.

This kind of support does not come overnight! Remember, pastor, God has been preparing your heart for this project for months and even years before it is time to share it with the people. You can’t expect to stand up on Sunday and have all the money you need on Tuesday.

It is at this point that the first step of faith is going to be exercised. If God has truly led you to expand, can He truly provide the funds to accomplish that which He has directed? Is Philippians 4:19 true or not? Will God supply “all your need” in this building program according to your loan commitment or “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”? I did an exhaustive study on the Greek work, pas, that we translate as all. If you get to the literal root of that Greek word that we render as all, you may find that its accurate translation-its literal, root meaning is-are you ready for this?-all!

So often I have seen a church enter the building program with a feeling that it should do so debt free. After getting early estimates on costs and presenting the program to the people, the task seems insurmountable and then someone shows that the rate of inflation makes it “wise” to borrow money rather than building for cash. The church then creates a bonding program and sells all the bonds to its own people! What that says to me is that the money was there, but that the “willing heart” was not. Some might argue that the people needed that income to meet their
needs, but Larry Burkett of Christian Financial Concepts states these building programs could be accomplished by “the Christians involved surrendering less than 10 percent of their savings.”

The promise of plenty does not guarantee the money will all come in at once. Realistically, from time of leadership’s agreement that an expansion program is needed until actual completion of the program can span a three-year period. In prayer, ask God how you should approach gathering of the people’s offerings. I believe He will give you specifics like the following example:

One pastor read in Exodus 23:14 that there were to be three major feasts unto the Lord in a year. Study showed these to be the 1) Feast of Unleavened Bread, 2) Feast of Pentecost (because it was 50 days after the Passover) which was also called the “feast of harvest” or “feast of first-fruits,” and 3) Feast of Tabernacles or “feast of ingathering.”

The church started its building program by encouraging each family to bring the equivalent amount of money they would normally spend on food for a week to start the tabernacle fund as if it were a fast week. The church added the money in the building fund and used the $20,000 as seed by giving the money back to the people to invest in money-making projects for the Lord (many people have skills, but no capital, so this money provided material for one lady to sew pillows and dolls, one man to buy an old car that he restored, one group of ladies to hire a large hall for a garage sale, one family with enough capital to make repairs on an old house that they sold, and so forth).

At the Feast of Pentecost seven weeks later, they celebrated the first fruits of the initial seed by receiving an offering of more than $75,000 that started the site preparation and architect’s drawing. On this day they also announced the leadership’s pledges and set the ingathering date for the Feast of Tabernacles. At the ingathering for the tabernacle close to $500,000 of the needed $850,000 was received or pledged over the coming 12 months, so construction was commenced. Two additional “feast days” were celebrated before final funds were received and the building occupied 15 months later. There was a period where construction stopped for three months while people were tested for their willingness to give.

The Purpose

“For the palace is not for man, but for the Lord God” (1 Chron. 29:1).

I sat with one pastor and discussed why I felt his church’s building program was not going well. God had spoken to the members that He wanted to do a mighty work and build their building debt free, but money wasn’t coming in. One of the things I had observed was that the church leaders were not showing a spirit of sacrifice in their giving. One of the elders had just purchased a new luxury car, another took a trip to Hawaii, another was adding a swimming pool in his backyard, and so forth. There is nothing wrong with the items I’ve listed (I hope not, because I’ve
been blessed to enjoy each of those things in my life over the years) but the timing was not right.

In order for the building program to go right, there must be an agreement among leaders that the single most important thing happening in that church’s life is the building’s completion. And the leaders’ lifestyles must reflect that importance. I would clarify that the building program must never get in the way of our Great Commission-sharing Christ to an unsaved world, but can you see how a debt-free structure releases your church to the Great Commission? The building is a place for God’s people to gather and receive training to go out and be involved in ministry. Instead of using 20 percent, 30 percent and 50 percent of your offering in building payments, all this money is released to spread the gospel.

The Priority

It bears repeating that our first priority must be that of sharing to a hurting world. I had stated in the past that if every man, woman and child in a church were tithing, then 100 percent of all funds needed would be there, even including a building program-but I was wrong. David had a tithing group and had been setting aside money to build the temple, yet, when the time came to build, he launched a building program!

At a minimum, a church should tithe its building fund receipts. I urge this for several reasons. First, it allows us to claim the provision of Malachi 3:11 where God will “rebuke the devourer for” our sakes. I can’t think of a better way to enlist God’s support to keep building material prices constant, delays due to strikes at bay, and employment of giving members stable.

Second, it establishes the needs of others as a priority in the church’s life and aids people to break out of their selfish mold. If we’re going to ask people to give, we need to set the pattern.

Third, it models that principle of sowing and reaping: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest…will never cease” (Gen. 8:22 NIV). The Bible clearly teaches that if we give, we will receive. When done properly, giving will never cost anything because God will give it back “pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38).

Even more of a challenge, however, would be to launch a building program by giving a seed offering to missions and dedicating a portion of the church budget to support spreading the gospel.

As parents, we never want to be in the position where we are telling our children, “Do as I say, not as I do,” yet, as a church, we often do just that. We ask our people to give to our building program over and above their normal tithes and offerings. We are asking them to adopt a spirit of sacrifice and expectancy that God will do something miraculous, but we don’t pattern this sacrifice and
expectancy at the church level.

The tithe is the minimum, as Christ said in Matthew 23:23, this, “ought ye to have done.” Christ challenges us to go beyond the minimum to participate in giving more than the tithe so that we can experience “judgment, mercy and faith.”

By starting our building program with a missionary offering, we are demonstrating that our values are not on building some monument to the pastor, but rather on eternal values of sharing Christ. By dedicating a portion above the tithe to missions, we are leading the way in the spirit of sacrifice and expectancy that God will perform a miracle. And, most importantly, we are establishing a proper priority structure.

The Procedure

“Moreover, because I have set my affection to the house of my God, I have of mine own proper good, of gold and silver, which I have given to the house of my God, over and above all that I have prepared for the holy house, even three thousand talents of gold, of the gold of Ophir, and seven thousand talents of refined silver, to overlay the walls of the house withal: The gold for things of gold, and the silver for things of silver, and for all manner of work to be made by the hands of artificers. And who then is willing to consecrate his service this day unto the Lord?” (1 Chron. 29:3-5).

Note that David let everyone know exactly how much he was giving to the building program. If my pastor announces his intention to give $500 to the building fund, what will my gift be? If you said $500, you’re right. By announcing this amount, my pastor has placed a monetary measure of how important he feels the building program to be. He has led and I follow.

What happens if he announces that he doesn’t know where the money is coming from, but feels God is directing his family to trust him for $8,000? What will my gift be? If you said that you were going to go home and pray about it, you’re right! Again, my pastor has shown the importance he is putting on the building program, hopefully I will follow. In the Living Bible, the latter part of 1 Chronicles 29:5 is rendered: “Now then, who will follow my example? Who will give himself and all that he has to the Lord?”

What is the next step? We read in 1 Chronicles 29:6,7: “Then the chief of the fathers and princes of the tribes of Israel, and the captains of thousands and of hundreds, with the rulers of the king’s work, offered willingly, and gave for the service of the house of God of gold five thousand talents and ten thousand drams, and of silver ten thousands talents, and of brass eighteen thousand talents, and one hundred thousand talents of iron.’

David then announces the leaders’ total gifts (not their individual gifts, but the total of their combined gifts). It is essential that the people see a united leadership in the building program. If a small group of your leaders has reservations about the expansion, my advice would be to postpone announcing the program until there is unanimity. If, after a period of prayer and waiting upon the Lord, there is a small percentage of leaders who are not in agreement with the proposed expansion (say 5 percent or less), then I would ask those not in agreement to pray about resigning their leadership position. Sound harsh? It is. In fact, it is so harsh that we must clarify in our minds what the spirit of the dissenter is before asking him to resign.

Suppose one says, “I can’t feel free that this is what God wants us to do, but I trust the Jesus in you other believers. If you feel this is what God wants us to do, I’ll support you.” That is a supportive spirit and I would ask that leader to continue to pray and ask God what it is that is troubling him. I believe in the Philippians passage that tells us to let “the peace of God rule your hearts.” Many
times, that little check of the spirit in a leader’s life can lead to a detail change that is very important to the overall plan. It was that “check” in the spirit of one leader that caused the church I mentioned earlier to have their pastor pray about the new design for their building.

The spirit I’m referring to is the one we have to deal with from time to time where one of our leaders is not in tune with what God is doing and becomes combative in his approach. This opposition often is because of some problem in that leader’s life and we need to be committed to him at a level that will love and care for his hurt. I don’t mind delaying a building program for a period of
time to help a leader back into full fellowship with the Lord and brethren. In fact, I would insist that we delay because our priorities must be people before buildings, but there can come a time when we perceive that there is a hardening of that leader’s heart and that is when he must be asked to resign. Imagine 23 enthusiastic leaders convinced that God’s timing and building plan has been revealed and there is one lone dissenter. Somebody approaches the dissenter:

Churchman: “What do you think of the plans to build?”

Dissenter: “The majority of the board felt that the time was right.”

Churchman: “What is your feeling?”

Dissenter: “I guess I’m willing to go along with the majority.”

Churchman: “Some of us feel that the pastor just wants to build a monument to himself.”

Dissenter: “Well….”

Do you see how quickly a negative feeling could be generated in this church? It will be important to get a pledge card back from each of your church members. This may be either signed or unsigned (I favor a card that has a space for those who voluntarily want to have their pledge recorded) and would include the amount given in cash, the amount being pledged and the time period in which the pledger is trusting God to provide the funds.

In announcing the pledge date, I feel the leadership should establish some benchmarks. If a certain percentage of the total needed is not given and pledged, then the program ought to be halted until the people are willing. It is at this point that many churches fail. Did God direct that this was the time to build? Did you feel that God directed that you not go into debt? The time may be right and the procedure right, but if the people are not willing, then to push the program will end in disaster both spiritually and financially. Just as you waited for the leadership to come together, sometimes you will need to wait until the people come together-let God have some time to work on their hearts.

Does it really matter whether the building is done in one year or three? If at the end of three years you have a united body of believers that has seen God do a mighty work, isn’t it worth the extra time? Remember, you are building because God has directed it and has promised that He will be with you and direct you and provide everything needed to accomplish the task. Have faith in that promise and stick to it, never wavering and God will reward that faith!

What, however, happens when every leader is behind the program?

The Provision

“Then the people rejoiced, for that they offered willingly, because with perfect heart they offered willingly to the Lord…” (1 Chron. 29:9).

“And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing hearted, and brought bracelets, and earrings, and rings, and tablets, all jewels of gold…” (Ex. 35:22).

“The children of Israel brought a willing offering unto the Lord, every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all manner of work.. ” (Ex. 35:29).

“For the stuff they had was sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much” (Ex. 36:7).

The rendering of 1 Chronicles 29:9 (NIV) states: “The people rejoiced at the willing response of their leaders, for they had given freely and wholeheartedly to the Lord.” At this point, King David begins praising the Lord, stating in verse 17 that he has “seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you.” They then began a spontaneous praise session that lasted several days.

In Exodus, it is recorded that the people gave “willing hearted” to the point that it was too much and they had to request that the people stop bringing in their offerings, “So the people were restrained from bringing.”

David and Moses were wise leaders. They got their plan from God, waited upon Him for details and timing, presented the plan to the leaders first and enlisted their wholehearted support, then presented the challenge to the people. The people’s response? They rejoiced! Their rejoicing was not just because of the big offering, rather it was because they saw the willing, free, wholehearted response of their leaders and out of that rejoicing spirit, they began following their leaders’ example and began offering willingly, to the point where there was enough and an overabundance.

God has stated that if we follow His ways, He will respond by fulfilling His promises. One of those promises is that we will not have to borrow. Too many times in the past several years I’ve seen church names in the headlines proclaiming bankruptcy, securities violations and even fraud in connection with over-ambitious building programs. What I’m looking for are headlines that say:

“First Assembly…
“First Christian…
“First Evangelical…
“First Friends…
“First Lutheran…
“First Methodist…
“First Presbyterian…
“First……..Tells People to Stop Giving.”

My prayer is that your church will be one of these. Will you accept God’s challenge?

Malcolm D. MacGregor, CPA, is author of Your Money Matters, Financial Planning Guide for Your Money Matters and Training Your Children to Handle Money. He has is own accounting/consulting practice and lectures internationally.

(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)

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